Over 700 migrants are feared dead in three Mediterranean Sea shipwrecks south of Italy in the last few days as they tried desperately to reach Europe in unseaworthy smuggling boats, the UN refugee agency said Sunday. UNHCR rep Carlotta Sami told the AP that an estimated 100 people are missing from a smugglers' boat that capsized Wednesday. The Italian navy took horrific pictures of that capsizing even as it rushed to rescue all those thrown into the sea. She said about 550 other migrants and refugees are missing from a smuggling boat that capsized Thursday after leaving the Libyan port of Sabratha a day earlier. She says refugees who saw the boat sink said it didn't have an engine and was being towed by another packed smuggling boat before it capsized with about 670 aboard. About 25 people from the capsized boat managed to reach the first boat and survive, 79 others were rescued by patrol boats, and 15 bodies were recovered.
Italian police have corroborated the account of the Thursday sinking in interviews with survivors, but with different numbers that were not immediately reconcilable. Per survivors, the second boat was carrying about 500 migrants when it starting taking on water. Efforts to empty the water—with migrants passing a few 5-liter bailing cans—were insufficient and the boat was completely under water after an hour and a half, police said. At that point, the commander of the first smuggler's boat ordered the tow rope to be cut to the sinking boat. The migrants on the top deck jumped into the sea, while those below deck, estimated at 300, sank with the ship. Of those, just 90 were rescued. In a third shipwreck on Friday, Sami says 135 people were rescued, 45 bodies were recovered, and an unknown number of people—many more, migrants say—are missing. Last week, over 4,000 migrants were rescued at sea in one day alone by Italy. (Read more migrants stories.)